Tight squeeze – The port of Livorno

The Port of Livorno is a challenge for container ships: Two narrow bends and tight passageways require precise coordination from the pilots, the tugboats and the ship’s crew. “Logbook” accompanied the “Chicago Express” during its departure.

It is very tight and the container terminal can only be reached via two sharp, narrow bends: Livorno’s port is the most demanding one along our Atlantic route, the “Atlantic Loop 6” (AL6). The “Chicago Express” is 335 metres long and 42 metres wide. “A container ship is a lot of things, but nimble isn’t one of them. Pilots and tugboats help us to manoeuvre safely in a port,” explains Claas Heinrich Hurdelbrink, captain of the “Chicago Express”.

This is especially true of Italy’s third-largest seaport, located on the Mediterranean coast in Tuscany. Strict rules apply for entering and exiting the port. First, pilots only accompany ships during daylight hours. Second, pilots always come on board in pairs in Livorno to be able to monitor both sides of the ship at once while manoeuvring. And, third, at least two tugboats support the manoeuvre, turning and pulling the ship safely around the narrow bends. “Here in Livorno, as in the entire Mediterranean, we work with very good pilots,” Captain Hurdelbrink says. “They are extremely familiar with their harbour and their pilotage area. They know about every bend and all the currents.” One of them is Marino Binacotti. For over 20 years, he has been guiding ferries, container ships and cruise ships through his port – under almost all weather conditions. In his view, there’s no nicer place to berth. “Our port dates back to the 15th century. The landmark, the white marble-clad watchtower Torre del Marzocco, was built by the Medici and now stands here in the middle of the industrial port at its narrowest point. Back then, the harbour was closed by stretching an iron chain between the tower and the other side of the shore, and stones were thrown at foreign ships from the watchtower. But that doesn’t happen now to the ‘Chicago Express’,” Binacotti says with a laugh. Today, he and a fellow pilot are attending to the departure of the “Chicago Express” together with its crew. “Departures are usually less complicated than arrivals,” Captain Hurdelbrink notes. “The ship is already in its place and just needs to get moving.” Nevertheless, every port departure follows a fixed choreography. Sixty minutes before sailing, the officer of the watch will contact the port and the pilots by radio and report
that the ship will be ready to depart in approximately one hour. At the same time, the captain gives the order to the crew: “Preparation for departure.” For the engineers, this means starting up the engine, which will need about an hour before it’s ready for departure. Meanwhile, the team on the bridge is going through the checklist in preparation to clear the port.

Pilot Marino Binacotti and Captain Hurdelbrink remain in close radio contact with the tugboats

Twenty minutes before setting sail, just about every crew member is on duty. Then comes the captain’s announcement to the deck crew: “Standby forward and aft station.” This means that the crew members go to their designated positions at the front and back of the ship to take in the lines and prepare to put to sea. As soon as the cargo operations have been completed and the engine room and bridge are ready for departure, the pilots are called. The latter usually respond with the questions: “Cargo operations complete? All cranes boomed up and vessel ready to sail? Pilot ladder ready on the sea side?” The pilots are making sure that the cranes are up because this could otherwise lead to delays. If the captain answers “Cargo operation completed and ready for departure”, things can get moving.

The pilots board the ship via the pilot ladder

Already the pilots come into sight with their boat and board the ship via the pilot ladder and through the pilot access door. Going aboard via the sea side is the normal way in the Mediterranean. In the United States, where pilots don’t always have a pilot boat at their disposal, pilots often also board the ship for departure via the gangway. Here in Livorno, the chief mate meets the pilots at the pilot access door and escorts them directly to the bridge. As the “Chicago Express” is a training vessel, trainees sometimes handle this assignment, which leads them across the ship and up many steps.

Once on the bridge, the pilots and captain discuss the manoeuvre and clarify questions like: “How will we leave the pier? How will we navigate the narrow sections? How will we leave the port?”. “Of course, this often means: ‘Have you been here before? Do you know the procedure?’ In this case, the discussions are very focused and concise,” explains Captain Hurdelbrink, who has called at Livorno several times. However, it’s important to remember that even if the pilots take over the manoeuvring in port and keep in contact with the tugboats, the terminal and port control, the captain still retains overall responsibility. “I need to know what the pilot is doing and deciding,” Captain Hurdelbrink continues. “Even if the pilot speaks in his native language, he still needs to share all information with the captain. That always goes very well here.” After about an hour of manoeuvring, the ship is out. Just beyond the breakwater, the pilot boat is already waiting to collect Binacotti and his colleague. The pilots are escorted to the pilot access door and bid farewell: “Until next time!” Then the ship sets course for Genoa.

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